To Punish, or not to punish

Tanya Kemp

To Punish or not to Punish

In thinking about how to equip our children in relationships for the future, I got to thinking about punishment, and its role in our day-to-day parenting. Most of us come from a parenting style where we got rewarded for good behaviour and punished for bad behaviour. Research now shows us, that punishment in fact does NOT work, or equip our kids to doing better in life. 

Punishment breeds resentment in children and erodes relationship, connection and cooperation.

If you punish a child for doing something wrong, you rob him/her of the teachable moments that come up as part of their ‘healthy guilt’ over the impact their actions had on you or anyone else. Instead you move them to a place of feeling resentful and ‘wronged’. It becomes ‘me against you’ as opposed to let’s learn from this and move forward. It also fosters feelings of shame and worthlessness – “I am only good enough when I do the right things”, “I am bad”. 

This is even more true with siblings. When you make judgements about who is wrong and who is right in sibling fights, and even worse, punish the one you perceive to be ‘wrong’, you rupture not only your own bond with the child, but you also create resentment between siblings. The ‘punished’ child resents you, and they resent their sibling even more. They are basically then waiting for the next time they can ‘get back at their sister/brother’. If this happens day after day, you can imagine the pent-up anger and resentment brewing inside. 

Through judgment and punishing you would not have been successful in teaching your child the value of listening, respecting and resolving differences. It probably fed into their dysregulation more than anything – shutting them down even further. Remember: forcing children is never a good idea – there is no emotional connection when you do so and no motivation for a child to do better next time. 

Instead, let’s understand the behaviours that annoy us – such as when siblings are at each other, hitting, kicking, and so on, by focusing on the nervous system. Hitting, kicking screaming is rarely wilful and almost always because a child has ‘flipped their lid’ and is now in fight/flight. A stress response is NOT A CONSICOUS CHOICE

Responding to this dysregulation with anger and punishment, fuels the fire and keeps the child in that state. It also shows them that their big feelings are unacceptable and intolerable and because the feelings are part of who they are – they themselves feel unacceptable and intolerable. 

Respond instead by answering the questions: what does my child need from me right now? What is their behaviour showing me?

Perhaps they had other stressors impacting how they responded – were they hungry, tired, sick, dysregulated from a previous incident. Spotlight the stressor and meet the need.

Perhaps they don’t yet have the emotional maturity to compromise, negotiate or even share. Highlight what is hard and support them with that need by scaffolding the play interaction.

Perhaps your child’s sensory needs have been violated or have not yet been met, leading to stress behaviours.

Your children will do well if they can, and if they’re not, you need to become a detective about figuring out why. That is where your and your child’s growth will stem from. 

Your child is growing and learning and will make many mistakes with this. The biggest impact you can have on your child, in the long run, is through a connected relationship driven response, where you are curious and aim to meet needs.

Your child needs your calm, your regulation, your trust that he/she is a GOOD PERSON, and your respect.


Before responding to ‘bad behaviours’, use the power of the pause to stop and think more deeply about what you are seeing. It is okay to take a bit of time to respond. Ask yourself some questions about why you are seeing what you’re seeing and see how that changes your response. 

You can’t give what you don’t have.

If you’re not able to access your calm, bigger self at least some of the time when you are faced with challenging encounters with your kids, it’s time to take a long hard look at what you an let go of, to create space for you to tap into that inner wisdom and calm. 

What fills you up? Prioritize that over everything else. 


A Game of CopyCat: Gather everyone together, and the first person starts by doing something with their body/face or hands etc. Pace it according to your child, but you could bust out a handstand or simply stick out your tongue. When you’re done, you say: ‘Can you do that?’ which is then the cue for the rest of the family to copycat. The game forces everyone to tune into and pay attention to each other. It can be a pretty good antidote to feeling s of disconnect after a terrible sibling day (or any other reason of course) ☺


Make a wish for your seven year old self.

How about your teenaged self?

How about a wish for yourself today.